Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's a snake have to do with it?

Today's New Testament reading has perhaps the most famous verse in the whole Bible; probably millions can recite it from memory. But the verse begins with "For", as in "For God so loved the world..." But what is that "For" about? Here it is, with the immediately preceding sentence (from the NIV):
14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
John 3:14-16
So, verse 16 talks about the extent of God's love for the world. But that's not the main point of the passage; it's there in support of the previous sentence, which says basically that Jesus has to be lifted up -- like the snake in the desert. So what is that about? Well, that incident was one of those truly bizarre things.

There were venomous snakes attacking the Israelites and they came to Moses for help.
8The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." 9So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
Numbers 21:8-9
The passage in Numbers has more detail about that incident, but the point here is that when you're bitten by a snake, if you look at the bronze snake, you'll live. Otherwise you'll die.

Moses lifted up the snake so the people could see it. Jesus had to be lifted up -- symbolically I think. Why symbolically? Well, the story with the snake in the desert was that you had to look at it so you could live physically -- if not, your heart would stop. The story with Jesus is that you have to believe in him so that you can live eternally -- if not, you would perish.

In order to look at the snake, it had to be lifted up -- so it could be seen optically. In order to believe in Jesus, he has to be made, well, famous I guess -- so people could hear about him.

Well, that was interesting (well, OK, it was interesting to me), but ultimately the point is that God is going through all this stuff because of his great love. (The next verse, John 3:17, continues on this theme, explaining that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but to save it.) And that when Jesus did things that made himself known, it wasn't like the kind of self promotion that people like us would do; it wasn't to get a bunch of glory for himself. Rather, it was so that God could save the world through him.

There's a man focused on the mission, and motivated by an amazing love. Which is good news for you and me.

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